Articles that have come out surrounding this issue all have one thing in common: they have some serious truths. However, I think many points have been read out of context to some extent and have flared opinions in every aspect of the debate surrounding the NCAA and the National Governing Body (USST). My name is Sam DuPratt, and many of you have no idea who I am due to my lack of outstanding results on the world stage. I have had a lot of people ask me my opinion on this issue due to the fact that I have, “done it,” meaning I have skied in college and now the USST has taken a chance on me and named me to the team. Let it be known that I haven’t done s#*t yet, so take everything I say with that in mind.  

I have skied at every level available for US skiers with the exception of the Olympics. I was on and off the national team for three years of my career, never being named for two consecutive years. After trying my hand at World Cup GS and getting cut for the second time, I had no choice but to go to college. I was out of money, beat down by the harsh realities of the sport, and had nowhere to go. Luckily, the University of Utah took me in.

Advertisement

In agreement with the article the group of female college skiers wrote, I will forever be an advocate of collegiate skiing. It was the best time of my life to date. College takes skiing from being your one and only stress in life and puts it back to where it belongs; as the release and freedom from other stresses in the world. I have 26 Europa Cup starts to date, and I will tell you, not one of those was ‘fun’. College put the joy back in skiing for me, which turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to my career.

Pros of College

Ski racing in college is cheap. The expensive part comes with how much you are willing to pay for your education. Aside from tuition, books, room and board, the racing is essentially free. Money had been a huge stress for me in my career and all of a sudden it was gone. I was not on scholarship my first year, but in-state tuition and a well-funded University ski program made my ski season and education for the year cost under $9,000 – which was 1/3 what my previous three ski seasons had cost me. It was glorious to say the least.

Education has always been important to me. I didn’t like the feeling of having all my eggs in one basket when I was on the national team. Skiing is a very difficult sport and accidents can happen that can derail the pursuit of your dreams at any moment. This added a significant amount of anxiety to my mental health during my time on the USST prior to college. College gives you peace of mind that if something happens, you have a safety net underneath you. Which is not to discredit the athletes that bypass the college system; it takes a great amount of confidence and sacrifice to pursue your goals to the fullest, and hats off to those athletes. Maybe I am soft, but I did not enjoy it, and college gave me an out from that anxiety.

When I was dropped from the team for the second time, I was 165 pounds. I was strong(ish), but I certainly did not look like anyone else I was racing against in the 2015 Hinterstoder WC GS. I think I may fall under the category of a ‘late bloomer’, although still hoping to ‘bloom’ some more. That being said, college bought me time to mature physically and mentally. I learned how to manage my time, choose priorities in life and career, converse with people outside of the ski racing world, and most importantly how to win races (a skill often overlooked when using the phrase “fast skiing is fast skiing”).

Cons of College           

From direct experience I will tell you one thing is for certain; racing in college is more demanding than being on the US development team. You are (arguably) skiing at the same level (or higher), but have significantly less time to work on your craft. Like it or not, Bryce Bennett’s article nailed it on a few points, and one thing I took away from his opinion is that college skiers are at a competitive disadvantage to national team members.  As some hard evidence to his points: I have raced several races on untuned skis due to educational obligations and a lack of time. I have stayed up past 3am writing essays before NorAm races. I drove through the night and slept in the parking lot at a Copper Mountain NorAm speed series because I had a test at 6pm in Salt Lake City that I couldn’t miss. I knew my ramp angle, boot plastic, base bevels, ski model, and had sharp files. However, I did not have the time or the resources to test and find the optimal set-up that Bryce talks about. In college, you make do with what you have, while on the national team you have technicians, ski manufacturers’ support, and all the time you need to dial it in.

Another point Bryce nailed is that college racing is not the same sport as World Cup in regards to terrain, snow surface, and course sets. It is INSANE how different they are. No offense to college racing but it is no NorAm, and already the gap between NorAms and the World Cup is too big. In college you still develop skills in skiing, there is no doubt about that. You are still turning around sticks in the snow on the side of a mountain while trying to do it faster than everyone else. Fore-aft balance, lateral-balance, pressure placement, tactics, and every other aspect of skiing are still well in play. College skiers work on these skills in the same way as World Cup athletes, but again with less time. All of those stated skills can be improved on while in college, but the hard part is applying those skills to World Cup venues. I have learned that this takes a substantial amount of time, effort, and open mindedness. It is the biggest struggle I have in my career at the current moment and again, to agree with Bryce, I am behind the curve due to my time in college. This is the biggest disadvantage to college skiers moving through the pipeline.

Can it be done?

To me, this is not a debate. It can be, it has been, and it is being done. Plenty of great skiers went through college and have left trails to follow. I set out to try and accomplish this in super-g and downhill, in hopes to leave a trail for more athletes to pursue.

I will say this, college is not the ‘optimal’ path. While there are pros to college, the cons definitely leave an uphill battle to the World Cup after the collegiate career, especially in regards to bringing developed skills to World Cup venues. I believe this is why the USST is wary of adding collegiate skiers to their rosters, and to be frank, I do not disagree with them. I genuinely believe that my chances of winning an Olympic medal decreased the day I went to college, but that DOES NOT mean that those chances are gone.

How is it done?

There is no right or wrong answer. Ski racing is a giant blend of talent, hard work, luck, and luck. One major flaw I see in many athletes is their goal setting. If you ask younger athletes what their goals are, you usually hear two things: make the US Ski Team, or ski D1 in college. These are both great accomplishments, but I disagree with both in terms of goals. When I was young, I wanted to make the US Ski Team. I wanted the jacket, and to sign kids helmets just like Daron Rahlves and Marco Sullivan signed mine. However, ‘making’ an organization is not a goal. It is like saying, “I want to get on the boat to sail around the world” instead of, “I want to sail around the world”. The USST is a vessel that can help carry you to your goals. After being dropped for the first time by the team, I took it personally. I had some serious hate for the USST as I had felt they had ripped my dreams from my hands. The next year I found my true goal, win World Cups and do so by any means necessary. To me that is a goal. If your goal is ski D1, revise your goal to something like, “become an All-American at NCAA champs,” and realize that the school you go to is the boat that takes you there. If the organization is the destination, complacency sets in and progress comes to a screeching halt. I have seen it on college teams and national teams alike. If your goal is to win World Cups, the ideal vessel is the US ski team, but it is not the only boat. Recruit some people and build your own boat. You will be better for it, I promise.

Once I pivoted my goal, every opportunity I was granted became a bonus instead of a necessity. I wanted to win World Cups and planned to do everything in my power to accomplish it. Tanner Farrow and I set out and joined GroundSwell Athletics following our collegiate careers. At the time, I was in no place to warrant a national team nomination, so we did it on our own. Was it easy? Absolutely not. It was one of the hardest years of my career, but if it were easy then it wouldn’t be fun or worth it. Were we better for it? Definitely. It felt like a crusade, and it was just me, my best friend, and an awesome coach, Cody Marshall. Let it be known that we had incredible financial support from some donors, great support from our ski company, and Burke Mountain Academy and Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation took us in as their own.

That season, I won the super-g NorAm title and was granted a World Cup spot. I had 6 points and was ranked 32nd in the World. The US team called me in the spring to tell me I was not going to be named, but they were going to support me all season. The only restrictions being I couldn’t go to a few prep camps, and had to pay for my expenses. For the first time in my career, I was pumped to be an ‘invitee’ yet again. My goal was to win World Cups, I had my own World Cup spot, I had some support from the national team, and it was all a bonus in my pursuit of my goals. Was I fully on the boat? No, but I was a stowaway and my life got that much easier.

Several people called me following the team nominations that year to ask why I wasn’t named. I had won the NorAm title, had minimum FIS points, and scored World Cup points in my first WC SG in Kitzbühel. While I am immensely proud of these accomplishments, they gave me zero entitlement to a USST nomination, and I understood that. I believe Chad Fleischer left a comment saying, “The USST owes you nothing” and nothing could be truer. I felt fortunate that they gave me the support that they did.

This year I am fortunate enough to be named. I am grateful for this because, again, I do not feel entitled to it. I took a longer path to the World Cup, and as stated above, I am behind the learning curve of my peers in terms of dialing in my equipment setup and learning how to manage World Cup venues. I see it as the USST taking a bold chance on me as an under-developed 26-year-old that shows promise based off a few results and some fast splits. I also recognize the luck involved in the fact that there are not many younger skiers coming through the USST SG/DH pipeline, and the timing for my crusade is impeccable. To say the least I recognize my fortune.

Why did I just tell you all of that? Hopefully you do not see it as an egotistical story. I wanted to lay out how I have ‘done it’ so far. It can be done, has been done, and is being done. It is vital to know that it is not easy and that there are endless road blocks, but they are not impassable. Ski racing is unfair. That’s the nature of the sport. Control what you can (ski fast) and don’t stress the rest. If you do this in your pursuit, bad luck will not get you down and your goals become that much more achievable.

USST Relations with NCAA Athletes

This may be surprising coming from a guy that has been dropped twice from this organization, but I genuinely believe the US Ski Team does its best with what it has. Is the team perfect? Absolutely not, and I hope they are the first to say that. If they had the resources to name and support every athlete that showed any form of promise, I believe they would in a heartbeat. However, this is not a reality.

Each athlete they name or support is a financial investment gamble. Very few of these gambles pay off, so they look at data to try and make the best decisions possible. I am in strong agreement with them that an ex-collegiate or current collegiate athlete is in general (anomalies exist) a riskier pick than a young up and comer who is dedicating 100% of their time to their craft. Therefore, I believe if an athlete chooses or is pushed into a collegiate career, they may need to put a little more on their athletic resume before they warrant a team nomination.

That being said, I believe collegiate athletes are not given enough credit for how hard it is to be in an educational institute and still performing in athletics at a high level. Maybe this calls for more credibility when college athletes are being considered for national team spots. However, these athletes should be able to objectively show their skills on race day at NorAms and other high-level races.

Who is to blame for the gap between collegiate races and World Cup events? How do we make this gap smaller? It is important for people to believe that small changes make a massive difference in this issue. I think this issue falls into the lap of collegiate ski programs. I find it unfair that the USST takes all the blame for not seeing college as a pipeline while college programs are far from perfect and are notorious for stalled development in athletes (a hasty generalization). College teams should coordinate combined training opportunities with the fastest collegiate athletes training together, especially in the summer months. There are NCAA rules to consider, but it has been done in the past and can be done again. It also falls on college organizations to provide training of the same, if not better, caliber than that of the US development team. I know this is challenging with home resorts, but let’s make this one happen. If college teams want to be considered a strong development pipeline, then they should offer training and racing on par with the US D-team and start developing athletes that dominate NorAms at the end of their collegiate career. In debatably the best move of all time, Remember the Titans, Denzel Washington says to his team to, “Leave no doubt” when facing its opponent. I challenge collegiate programs to improve to a point where they ‘leave no doubt’ that college ski racing develops world class skiers.

Should the NCAA and USST work together on scheduling? Yes. I do not see a strong argument against that. However, I think it has been discussed in unfair light. NorAms are hard to put on due to financial reasons and hill space. Also, it is important to note that the EISA races seven weekends in a row mid-winter; that is a fairly hard schedule to work around. The USST is trying to improve the quality of these races to shrink the gap between NorAms and World Cups, which in my opinion, is vital to the success of our sport as a nation. NorAms are undeniably the path to the World Cup. If not for any reason other than the minimum penalty is significantly lower than FIS U. For this reason, they should take a priority over FIS U’s.

That being said, both organizations should do everything in their power to make the most viable schedule for all North American athletes and to approach this issue unbiasedly. Collegiate athletes are already at a disadvantage in NorAms. If there are increased scheduling conflicts, this gap gets larger. If you argue that it’s the fault of the athlete for choosing to go to college, I counter with, don’t you think national team athletes should be able to beat college athletes on a level playing field anyway? To all the people making these decisions, please make it as fair as possible, that is all anyone asks.

Last but not least, Tricia Mangan brought up the USST’s blocking of non-national team athletes to training and World Cup opportunities. I believe it is important that the USST should not exclude athletes from training just because they lack national team status. This does happen. I have seen it and I have been a part of it. This is not necessarily a USST organizational issue, as I have seen similar exclusion tactics from club teams, regional teams, and collegiate teams alike. It appears to be a coach-driven protection mechanism that activates when athletes from an outside group pose a threat to the success of their own athletes. Athletes, too, are guilty of boxing out competitors and excluding rivals from certain training opportunities. I think cultural progress needs to be made within US skiing to where all US ski coaches are proud of and support all US skiers. At the end of the day it is us versus the world, so let’s all help each other. One simple thing we can do is keep domestic competition high on race and training days. I would much rather see the US D-team training with an American collegiate team than the Italian Europa Cup team. This can lift all of US skiing to another level. Again, this goes for ALL coaches and organizations within US skiing.

Conclusion

The collegiate girls’ article was right in saying that college is awesome and provides an amazing community and team culture, positive experiences, a foundation to build a career off of, a high level of athletics, and a path to the World Cup. No one is arguing against those things, not even Bryce’s article. I will forever encourage athletes to ski in college.

The USST gets bashed too often in the debate around collegiate skiing. They are in a tough position and hats off to them for implementing changes that people are calling for. They are fully funding athletes now, and that is one heck of an accomplishment to say the least. I refuse to believe that they close the door to outside opinions and I am hopeful this conversation will lead to new opportunities in US skiing. The missing link to a lot of these debates is that solutions seem to only include the USST. While they do hold a lot of power, accountability seems to be lacking on the athlete, coach, club team, and collegiate levels. I ask everyone to think about what they personally can do to improve US skiing as a whole, not just what the US Ski Team can do. Change starts in communities and bleeds outward. Like I said, it is us against the world.

Bryce claims that college struggles to prepare athletes for World Cup skiing. I feel this at every World Cup I race. His point is that if you want to move up in the world of ski racing, and chose to go to college, then own up to it. It is a path less traveled, which leads to more bumps in the road. I challenge athletes taking this path to face those challenges head on, be a problem solver, and keep your nose on the grindstone. It can be done, so do it. As Bryce said, “you made your bed now lay in it.” That is all good by me. You lay in yours, Bryce, I will lay in mine, and I plan to see you at the top. That is the American way.

— Sam DuPratt
U.S. Ski Team

This letter was submitted in response to the article USST, NCAA butt heads over NorAm schedule. Have some thoughts on this? Send a letter to the editor. If it’s good, we’ll publish it.

Letters to the editor are wholly the opinion of the author. Ski Racing Media does not endorse, edit, or fact-check letters to the editor. We do have a couple rules, which can be found here.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Sam, thank you for taking the time to share your story and reflect on your experiences. Like all others who have written in over the past few weeks, it takes a great deal of courage to publicly express your opinions and give commentary on complex and always evolving issues. So again, thanks for sharing and kudos to everyone who has put themselves out there.

    Sam, you know me personally and have witnessed my ski career all way back to the good ‘ol days of lapping KT with Dick and hiking the knob. For those of you don’t know me, my story is similar to Sam’s, with the exception that I found my NorAm success in skicross before getting my a** kicked on the World Cup during the winter of 2014. Sidelined by a severe broken leg and compartment syndrome that spring (occurred freeskiing for those who were looking to call out skicross as “more dangerous”), I decided to opt for “Plan B” and pursued college to make the most of my time off snow. Although the comeback dream that motivated me through recovery never came to fruition, I stayed highly involved in all aspects of skiing during college and was lucky enough to work with an amazing group of alpine FIS athletes as a lead coach while finishing up my MBA.

    I have been following the commentary from the US ski community over the last few weeks in regard to how to improve the development pipeline in order to bring the U.S. Ski Team back to its “Best in the World” status. Like you mentioned, this debate has been highly focused on the relationship between the USST and the collegiate teams of the NCAA. (Note, the discussion of college ski teams being cut also needs to be addressed or there will be no NCAA skiing… but that may be for another day). I agree with your evaluations on the pros and cons of choosing to ski in college and want to emphasis your point on the extreme scheduling limitations that working two full time jobs (school and skiing, plus maybe a little social life in there too? It is college after all.) has on an athlete’s ability to really become a master, both on the hill and in the classroom. The logistics are extremely demanding across the board and even more so for the schools in the RMISA – due to longer travel times on the west coast. I have lived this reality and also seen its impact on athletes. Yes, a packed schedule does teach student-athletes the importance of time management, but it is no secret that at some point during a college career the outcome of a training session, race or assignment is less than ideal due to exhaustion. I agree with you, especially in the speed disciplines, that going the college route leaves you at a disadvantage developmentally simply from the quantity and quality of time spent on snow during a four-year college career. On the other hand, I also see the benefit of using the time to get stronger and figure out what works on race day to make the most of an opportunity. And again, as you stated, most of the North American venues, surfaces and sets are not comparable to WorldCup environments.

    Furthermore, I think your analogy describing the “USST” as a vessel is spot on and think every athlete, parent and coach, should take note of this shift and realize the importance of individual accountability from a young age and the impact of mindset. Not only in our sport, but in life in general. When I was on my own crusade and switched from strictly alpine skiing to skicross there was no USST support or formal worldcup team and my goal shifted, like you, from catching the boat to not only building the boat, but mapping the route, hoisting the sails, and bailing out water when the seas got rough. The reality that the only person that can make it happen is the athlete themselves (whether its fundraising, travel logistics, fitness, equipment prep, training or racing); often leads to fast skiing and a better understanding and appreciation of the process. I do not think there is a single formula or answer for how to develop skiers. There are far more variables in our sport than say baseball or football, and in my opinion it is why it is so attractive.

    You left us with a better picture of where improvement can be implemented and appreciate the spreading of the blame across the board. I truly believe every person involved can do a better job to help US athletes develop into more competitive international skiers and exceptional human beings.

    I want to challenge the US ski community to do more research and have a bigger discussion into other factors that may be affecting the development pipeline here in the US other than the relationship between the USST and NCAA. This includes the impact of drought years on the ability for young skiers to freeski and perfect fundamentals. The impact of overtraining, burnout and lack passion for skiing outside of courses in general (thank you Will Brandenburg, where was this support from Alpine coaches a decade ago after Daron and Casey’s Vancouver run or Teller’s Sochi push?). The impact of larger ski programs with unqualified coaches and corporate agendas. The smaller pool of FIS athletes reaching college age due to many different subsections of our sport– enter slope, pipe, moguls, and big mountain (and hopefully one day skicross). The impact of the FIS age being raised to 16 almost guaranteeing at least one bank account draining PG year. And the impact of the average race weekend cost including tickets and entry fees.

    I also ask if the discussion can open up to how the Nordic side of the USST utilizes collegiate skiing. I know endurance athletes mature at a much later age in general. Is there anything we can learn from that side of the organization? Or are they too at a similar developmental plateau?

    These are just a few of the systematic issues that I can name off the cuff that might be hurting the development pipeline beyond what is being currently discussed. If our athletes cannot reach a level to be recruited to college how do we expect a “fix all” pipeline be based around the NCAA? And I hear those who bring up the foreign scholarship issue, however if you dive in a little deeper it is obvious, strictly from a maturity and financial perspective, why Americans are not filling every Division 1 team spot. (Note: I have not screened through every D1 roster this year but in the past I have been surprised by the number of US participants, usually higher than the general talk of the community). For those who read Roko’s letter there is one perspective, another is if you look at many Euro/Scandinavian sports academies the average High School graduate is 19-20 years old. Where compared to the US it is 17-18. With the FIS age being 16, some of our foreign counterparts have 1-2 full seasons to lower their point profiles before college even becomes an option. To compete and look attractive to a collegiate coach, the average US athlete has to spend an extraordinary amount of time, resources and money after high school to even be considered as a potential recruit. At the end of the day skiing is a sport and beyond having fun and fostering relationships, the fundamental goal is to win, hence why we keep score. So please stop blaming college coaches for limiting team spots for US skiers and let’s find a way to make the critical years after High School more enjoyable, less expensive, and more productive. Not only will that help more US skiers reach college it will help the development system as a whole, speed skiers especially.

    With that in mind, I will go out on a limb and suggest a solution. Introduce a pay to play divisional PG teams that utilize the best training opportunities in each division and race at regional and national races as well as participate in regional camps and projects. This team’s objective would be to develop athletes who have graduated high school (ages 18-20) by giving them a high caliber team environment while training at the best venues in their local division, heck maybe even with the local college team. I know something similar has been tried with many individual clubs and the NTG, as well as regional projects for PG aged athletes, and this is simply the start of a much bigger discussion with many challenges, but I think if we can keep it more local, it allows for more time on snow and a lower cost. USSA can get involved by putting development money into partially funding coaches and help with travel stipends. Like Sam pointed out it “Change starts in communities and bleeds outward”, and I think we can do a better job helping the 18-20-year-old athlete get better training opportunities at various different venues within each division, regardless of what route their boat may take.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion!

  2. Hello Sam:

    Your insight is greatly appreciated. I have read all the articles and have only one question for all those involved – are NCAA and Independent racers automatically disqualified from discretionary Team selection because they took a different route? Over 50% of the 2020 USST nominations were discretionary picks and a lot of kids whose parents donated a lot of money ended up with those picks.

    We had absolutely no choice in the matter due to financial concerns – we had to choose between quitting skiing after attending Team Academy or go to college and continue the ski racing goals on a funded college team. PG was not an option for us because we did not have the money to do it. Because college was our only choice does that discount what these athletes have achieved this year? If you have the money for private coaches, dedicated lanes and donate a lot of cash to USSS it appears your chance of making the USST is greatly improved.

    There are a number of US NCAA and Independent athletes who earned fixed WC starts through Norams this year and were not awarded discretionary picks over all those athletes who did not even come close to their results and performances. I think this is the crux of all these discussions.

    Jaime

  3. Likewise, to the responders above, I think this is a fantastic article by someone ‘who has been there.’

    Thanks

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here